Conservation groups have the right to lease state land for preservation purposes. That's the precedent-setting ruling coming from the Arizona Supreme Court.

In a December 2001 decision, the court says state land commissioner Dennis Wells has no right to refuse to let environmental groups bid on grazing leases. State officials must at least consider other lease applicants and award leases to conservationists if they are in the best interest of the state.

This decision is a victory for Forest Guardians, which has tried for years to bid on grazing leases to the land. The court notes there was evidence that at least one parcel sought by the group had been “overgrazed and reduced to a ‘moonscape’ in need of restoration.”

Proponents called it a victory for the state's schools, which share in the income from the lease of school trust lands.

But Charles “Doc” Lane, rancher and lobbyist for the Arizona Cattlemen's Association, disagrees.

“Ranchers are losing their exclusive right to bid on the approximately 7 million acres of state trust lands earmarked for grazing,” Lane says. “When state land is withdrawn from grazing, it means fewer cattle, and eventually, fewer ranchers.”

Lane says that means many won't be around to bid on land when a 10-year lease is up. He adds that if the land is no longer subject to grazing, environmentalists won't bid again, either.

But the Arizona Education Association doesn't see it that way. In fact, the organization filed a brief with the high court supporting the ability of environmentalists to outbid ranchers.

When Arizona became a state, Congress gave it nearly 10 million acres to sell or lease to the “highest and best bidder at a public auction” with proceeds earmarked for public schools. That provision is included in the state constitution.

Three cases formed the basis for the court's ruling.

  • Jonathan Tate, who has been active in the Western Gamebird Alliance, wanted to lease 16,000 acres north of Oracle Junction, AZ, to let the grasses grow, making the land available to hunters.

    “Grazing has destroyed the birding habitat,” says Tate, who offered twice as much as the existing leaseholder.

  • In another case, Forest Guardians offered to pay twice as much for 5,000 acres in Coconino County near Cataract Creek.

  • In addition, Forest Guardians claimed they would pay five times more than ranchers for 162 acres in Santa Cruz County, which the Babocomari River runs through.

Both Forest Guardian bids were rejected.

Court Justice Stanley Feldman, writing the majority opinion, says the land department's decisions ignored the legal requirements. He says it is clear that Tate and the Forest Guardians offered the highest bid.

Feldman said the question of who is the “best” bidder is a closer call, and Wells does have some discretion. But he made it clear that discretion does not extend to simply deciding that grazing is the only permitted use.

“Restoration and preservation are already, and must continue to be, considered legitimate uses for land that … has no higher and better use than grazing,” Feldman wrote. “Otherwise, grazing lessees could continue to graze stock until the land is damaged and its value destroyed.”

Justice Frederick Martone, the lone dissenter in Wednesday's 4-1 ruling, says Wells should not be forced to accept a bid on grazing land from any individual or group with a different agenda. He says state law already requires the land commissioner to deny leases on land that is overgrazed.